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The Irn Bru Cup – the ruination which will drive fans away

September 2, 2016

IT’S never been Dumbarton’s forte. But it’s been something we’d struggle without.

Tomorrow, the road to the final of another Challenge Cup – or the Irn Bru Cup as it is now – begins for Sons at Stranraer.

It’s Stevie Aitken’s first game back at Stair Park since coming to the Rock last year. That already adds intrigue to it.

And it’s a cup tie. A chance for Dumbarton to make progress towards the final of, let’s face it, the only knock-out competition they could realistically win as a part-time club.

There have been some real positives served up since the competition was introduced in 1990.

We were Elgin City’s first-ever opponents in the competition, winning 4-2 at Borough Briggs in 2000 as Paddy Flannery scored the only hat-trick we’ve ever scored in the Challenge Cup.

Stephen Grindlay made his Dumbarton debut in it when we beat East Fife 1-0 in 2002. His third game for the club was a 3-0 victory over First Division Ayr United in a game which had as many red cards as it did goals.

That meant we reached the quarter finals, where we lost to Queen of the South, who went on to win the tournament.

And although we’d rather not have been in the position, who can forget Pat Walker’s injury time winner to beat East Stirlingshire 3-2 in 2011, having had a 2-0 lead wiped out?

Unfortunately, those victories, and last season’s 3-2 win over Morton, are the sum of Dumbarton’s success in the competition’s 26-year history.

On average, we’ve won one tie every five years the competition has been staged – it wasn’t contested in season 1998/99. Two of the five victories were in the same season.

As flagged up elsewhere, the competition really hasn’t been a strong point for Dumbarton over the years. There have been unlucky days, there have been games where we just haven’t been good enough on the day.

But it’s still something we’ve looked forward to year in, year out.

It’s been the only realistic chance that clubs outside the top flight have of lifting a major trophy – though Hibs made a mockery of that statement at Hampden in May.

And in recent years, it’s been the match that signals the start of the competitive league season. The Challenge Cup was the first game of the campaign and the day when we could say goodbye garden, adios Asda, football was back to fill our Saturday afternoons.

So, despite a not-particularly-stellar record in the competition, it’s still something we’ve looked forward to. There’s always the hope it might be our year, and it’s remained a competition of value.

Until this season.

In bygone years, tomorrow’s game at Stranraer would have had the usual Sons away support hammering down the A77, dreaming of cup glory.

Instead, there is no supporters’ bus, and some of our most loyal home and away fans are missing the game entirely by choice. A win at Stair Park will be welcomed, but a defeat will simply be met with a shrug of the shoulders in many areas.

Why is this the outlook? Because the SPFL, the guardians of our game, made changes to the tournament during the close season which the fans thought they’d never see.

Premiership under-20 teams, four clubs who don’t even play club football in Scotland – is this REALLY how you treat a competition taken seriously by so many clubs who don’t get anywhere near the final of your other two tournaments?

The colt teams have been such a success this season that of the 12 who entered in round one, only one of them has survived to round three.

It is of course the wide opinion that this is the water being tested ahead of these teams’ entry into league competitions. A thought so unpalatable to many fans that it may well prove the tipping point.

And as for the assertion that it is to give young players a taste of competitive action…oh please. The clubs have teams which are designed to give their youngsters a taste of competitive action. It’s called the first team.

As for the four newcomers from outside Scotland, travelling to face whom will cost lower league clubs a fair whack.

No disrespect at all to Bala Town, The New Saints, Crusaders or Linfield. Whoever they play, Dumbarton or otherwise, will take them on just as they would any other team. But just what are they doing there?

Apparently it’s something to do with improving our relations with the football associations of Wales and Northern Ireland. Why does this need done, exactly?

Is it so that they’ll turn round and go: “See this player we’re developing? He’s really good. The next Gareth Bale. But he’s got a Scottish granny. You have him for your national team.”

Is there even anything wrong with our relationships with these associations that something needs done to improve them? News to many people if so.

The fans, who make the game what it is, don’t like it and tomorrow, Dumbarton will play a competitive match in front of a handful of diehard fans. Other supporters, some of whom rarely miss a game, will choose a Jeff Stelling Saturday.

To the fans who are going tomorrow – well done. Hope you have a good day out and your efforts are rewarded.

And to the players and management – good luck. This is a competitive game and all victories are a positive.

But should no victory be registered tomorrow, let the collective “so what” tell you everything. Not out of any spite towards the team, entirely out of spite towards the competition.

Down south, the EFL Trophy has been made into a group stage format with academy teams from the Premier League and Championship.

The first fixtures were played in that this week. Managers approve so much that they named themselves on the bench – there’s an idea for you, Stevie!

And the crowd figures say it all about what the fans think. There were 392 at Fleetwood and 461 at AFC Wimbledon – both of those for games involving academy teams.

With such a response, surely this format of the competition will prove to be a one-season wonder.

It would be nice to think the same of this season’s Irn Bru Cup, in view of the fans’ feedback. If only you could trust the SPFL to take it on board.

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